Unicef Logo and the text: Children Under Threat. The State of The World's Children 2005.

Poverty Photo
Paul Dillon

Fighting sexual exploitation and trafficking

Dewi 1 and her younger sister, Yani, rehearse a play in the backroom of a nondescript house in Surakarta, a city of 1 million inhabitants located in Central Java, Indonesia. The play, Eka, is about a girl abducted and sold into the sex trade. The sisters and nine of their teenage friends wrote and perform the play. “It is based on our real life,” says Dewi, a slight 21-year-old dressed in a white T-shirt and long denim dress. “Eka was stolen from her village by a pimp and sold to one of his customers. When she refused to have sex with him Eka was raped. In the play, one of Eka’s friends tries to help by getting a guardian angel to rescue her.”

The theatre piece was the idea of Kakak, a non-governmental organization partnering with UNICEF in Surakarta. “Theatre helps to build confidence and is an effective way of campaigning against commercial sexual exploitation of children,” says Emmy Smith, one of the group’s co-founders. Kakak, which means elder sibling in Indonesian, provides refuge, counselling and hope for children involved in the sex industry. Although girls represent the majority of the victims, many boys are also involved in prostitution. At present, Kakak assists 150 female and male victims of sexual exploitation through its programme and, with support from the local police and community, has successfully removed nine of these children from the sex industry, a significant achievement.

“To cope with the horrible life they have to endure, ninety per cent of the girls and boys involved in prostitution become drug addicts,” says Emmy Smith, one of the founders of Kakak. “Stigma, poor education, few employment opportunities and the lack of reintegration services are other reasons why it’s difficult to get girls out. It took us three years to rescue Dewi and Yani.”

Yani was 15 when her boyfriend lured her away from home with false promises of a lucrative job and a chance to continue her education. After a long journey by car to an unknown destination, she was raped by a middle-aged Indonesian man who beat her unconscious after she refused his advances. She was immediately sold to a brothel where she was guarded day and night. Dewi’s story is very similar.

Intimidated, ashamed and deeply disturbed, Yani and Dewi became two of the million of young girls and boys that go into the multi-billion-dollar sex trade across the globe.

“My pimp stopped giving me money and just supplied me with drugs,” says Dewi. “I got worse and worse. I lived from hotel room to hotel room, and worked wherever a client wanted me, here in Surakarta, Yogyakarta or Jakarta.”

When Kakak tried to rescue the girls, they initially hid from the organization. “We were scared of them and of what the pimp would do if he found out they were helping us,” says Dewi, “But then I got sick. I thought I had AIDS and was really scared so I went back home to my mother.” As it turns out, Dewi did not have AIDS. She told her mother what had happened to her. She continued working as a sex worker, although less frequently. She knew she wanted out and wanted to stop her drug use. So did her sister Yani, and they decided to turn to Kakak for help.

Finally, supported by their mother and by Kakak, both sisters successfully left the sex industry. Dewi is now back in school and is learning to become a counsellor for children who have been exploited. Yani wants to start her own youth organization. Eka has been their most widely performed play. They have acted for donor governments, local government, politicians and at art festivals in Surakarta and Yogyakarta.

Unfortunately, happy endings like theirs are rare. For each girl rescued, millions of others remain trapped in prostitution and millions more enter the sex industry each year.

Poverty Photo
©UNICEF/Indonesia/Joshua Estey

In Indonesia, it is estimated that 100,000 children and women are trafficked each year. Commercial sexual exploitation of children is on the rise, and one third of the sex workers are under 18 years old. The underlying causes of child trafficking include poverty and lack of economic opportunities for young people, the low status of girls, high demand for commercial sex, weak law enforcement, discrimination and conflict. Surveys on trafficking and sexual exploitation conducted in East Asia, including in Indonesia, show that trafficking of children is lucrative, well organized and linked to criminal activity and corruption. It is also transnational, often hidden and therefore hard to combat.

UNICEF works with the Government of Indonesia and local organizations like Kakak, to combat the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of children by promoting access to education; lobbying for laws requiring children to stay in school until the age of 16 and providing, in partnership with the tourism industry, vocational training for dropouts, children living on the street, and other youths at risk of exploitation.

Recovery and reintegration is also essential in helping children who have been trafficked and exploited. For them it is an enormous challenge to re-enter society after months, if not years, away from home in debasing and sometimes life-threatening conditions. UNICEF and its partners support the training of law enforcers, health professionals, social workers and teachers to address the needs of trafficked children. It also supports the development of a comprehensive referral system for victims of exploitation and trafficking.

1 The names of the children have been changed.

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Poverty and Children: Lessons of the 90s for Least Developed Countries [PDF]

“I think people, especially we the young people, need to change our attitudes towards sex issues. That is a change for the better. We need to adopt positive living styles if we are to remain free from HIV.”
girl, 17

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